Selective amnesia is an essential part of the “Stranger Things” experience, as a viewer and a character in the series. Why the hell else would you still live in the monster-infested Hawkins, Indiana, also home to a shadowy government agency who’s repeatedly demonstrated no regard for human life? As “Stranger Things” repeats the same tired, Stephen King-inspired sci-fi-y story each season—supernatural creatures crawl back from the Upside Down into Hawkins in the 1980s and the same group of kids and adults fight them back, including one girl with psionic abilities —audiences are expected to hold their suspension of disbelief and buy into the same increasingly-dubious concept. Despite a cataclysmic attack of monstrosities only conveniently really witnessed by the same 10 people, everyone returns to their normal lives and (mostly) behave as nothing happened. Oh, and the mysterious, sinister government agency uncovered in Season 1 that tries to keep the near-disaster under wraps (despite huge body counts and presumably missing people), no one really does anything about them either. Life just goes on in Hawkins.
And sure, that could work, it’s light entertainment, and perhaps shouldn’t be cross-examined so severely— “Stranger Things” works best as a breezy retro-pop horror framework where explanations shouldn’t manner much. Yet, in a serial setting, where the familiar story become increasingly derivative and disjointed—an excuse to drop pop culture references and seemingly create meme-able moments—the show’s progressively lazy writing accentuates its flaws, its failed logic and begins to erode goodwill and the readiness to look the other way at apathetic conceits that no longer feels worth tolerating.
Its 1985 in Hawkins now, which means the writer/directing pair, the Duffer Brothers, have given themselves further permission to indulge even deeper into the over-stylized ‘80s pop culture nostalgia that has marked the show, only now, everything is cartoonishly ‘80s, with oversaturated colors, garish styles, and hairdos and excessive needle drops slathered over every other scene (the luxury of telling a movie as a TV series is the ability to indulge and pander with musical tangents that have no consequence). The “Stranger Things” gang now in their early teenage years and the Duffer brothers manage to extend the lifespan of their concept a little bit by throwing it on its side and employing ‘80s Cold War-era conflicts. Now, it’s the Russians, seemingly aware of what the Americans have discovered—the mystical Upside Down world— trying to exploit that power and messing with things they shouldn’t because the arms race is all that matters.
However, rather than build on the foundation of its story, or even expand and widen the mythology of the mysterious creatures, “Stranger Things” seems to look at each season as an opportunity to glom onto one aspect of ‘80s nostalgia it has yet to exploit and in Season 3 that’s basically the phenomenon of mall culture, mall rats and the ilk, which works its way into the story later in a conspiratorial manner (location is everything). The Russians are just another set of obstacles and one that come with an annoying, unstoppable Terminator-like character that’s obviously modeled after Arnold Schwarzenegger minus any charisma.
Featuring a stunted narrative, the characters could further develop, but it’s mostly minor progressions of John Hughes-y romance or Amy Heckerling-esque teenage angst. Juggling ideas of adolescent confusion, and limbo “Stranger Things,” this season, is essentially about growing pains and clinging to the past, which is painfully ironic considering “Stranger Things” doesn’t want to change or evolve, content to indulgently bathe itself in nostalgia.
The idea of safe routine, and not rocking the boat, is threaded through Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), struggling with the idea of change and the differing personal interests of the group. Maddeningly, and in a gigantic missed opportunity, his character has the most disruptive change to offer—he casually comes out as gay, but the storytellers are too timid to do anything meaningful with the revelation, satisfied to just put it out there and let social media parse this non-starter event. The father/daughter relationship of police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), gets a little bit of mileage here too, Hopper grappling with not wanting to let go of his growing child, but much of it is typical and nothing you haven’t seen before.
The bottom line is, despite some new characters, some old ones being manipulated by the Mind Flayer (the big bad shadow monster controlling everything), and the Russian baddies, “Stranger Things” boils down to: the monsters are back, trying to make an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”-like take over, and the writing is never more elaborate aside from: “where, in all of this plot, can we squeeze in a stylish fashion music montage using Madonna?” (they do; it’s incredibly tedious).
Even at eight episodes in length—that feels much longer, wearisome and exhausting—“Stranger Things” can’t really sustain its own thin story. And you can only watch Eleven stretch out her hand, grimace, and scream in agony so many times before it just has zero impact. Yes, there are highlights and Maya Hawke—the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman who bears an uncanny resemblance to both of them—is the charming, unquestionable standout. As Robin, an “indie alternative” girl that works alongside Steve (Joe Keery) at the ice cream store in the mall, her terrific presence is a real breath of fresh air. Brett Gelman as the paranoid private investigator, who knows the true story of the government’s involvement, is amusing too, but the worthwhile elements end there.
Look, yes, “Stranger Things” was initially very watchable, a breezy mashup up of ‘80s genre pop-culture sensibilities—Stephen King, John Carpenter, darkwave synth-pop, “The Goonies,” “Ghostbusters,” etc—and this entertaining mash-up of influences felt refreshing in 2016. But “Stranger Things” should have essentially been a one-shot series and or an anthology, because the Duffer Brothers’ story has barely evolved and is now running on fumes.
With no sense of real emotional stakes, the Duffer brothers default to supernova-y melodrama that’s all pitched at 11: histrionic scenes of shrieking that either employ overwrought music, slow-motion or theatrical oh-my-god-this-is-really-the-end crosscutting techniques to try and delay the inevitability of the endless epic crescendos they try and craft. Sure, a few sacrifices are made and some obvious characters are toasted, but none of it means much. ‘80s references and nods are obviously everywhere (“Magnum P.I.” “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” “Back To The Future,” etc.), but the show is becomingly even more disconnectedly pastiche: an incongruous Phillip Glass-like musical crescendo comes out of nowhere and the gloriously inane “The Neverending Story,” moment is truly insipid. It should be said this show’s attempts at humor almost never work either.
At best, “Stranger Things” is fine, mindless, pass-the-time TV, but discerning viewers craving more than just a rehash will be disappointed. Yes, growing up is scary and it’s comforting to find a formula to lean on (again, irony alerts the filmmakers are seemingly unaware of), but if the Duffers want to continue, they better hope that audiences are willing to drink the Kool-Aid they offer up like so much product placement because its apparent that these Netflix Emperors have revealed themselves to have no clothes. “Stranger Things” essentially still lives in its own basement and it’s time for some parental figures to toss them out. Because the Upside Down has revealed itself to feature no depth and if “Stranger Things” refuses to grow up, its legacy will be remembered as a hit show that fell prey to franchise fatigue, content to play with the same old toys while everyone else moved on. [C-]